Episode 85 The Neuroscience behind learning with Dr Judy Willis

Dr Judy Willis

Dr. Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist in Santa Barbara, California, has combined her 15 years as a practicing adult and child neurologist with her teacher education training and years of classroom experience. She is an authority in the field of learning-centered brain research and classroom strategies derived from this research.

Find out more about Dr Judy Willis at radteach.com


Dan: (00:00)
Hi everyone. And welcome to the effective teaching podcast. I’m your host, Dan Jackson. And we are in episode 85. Today. I’m talking with Dr. Judy Willis. She’s been a neuroscience for 15 years and a teacher for 10 years after that. And she’s going to talk to us and explain to us the neuroscience behind how students learn and what we can do in our classroom to help make sure that our students are getting the understanding and the knowledge that they need to be successful in their learning and to be motivated for future learnings that come well. Judy, thank you so much for joining me today for this podcast. Could you tell us a little bit about the basics of how students actually learn

Judy: (00:42)
Easy? And then when they feel good, how, how do we all learn? It’s pretty, I get, I’ll be happy to go into the dopamine and the amygdala and the neuro chemistry and the genetics, but learning only takes place when we go from the unknown progress beyond it. It’s not learning when you repeat things. So it’s important to think that learning means extending beyond your safety net. It means the satisfaction, the whole brain is devised to respond with positivity. When you push your boundaries and get the feedback you’re making that you’re making progress. So learning is going from the unknown to the known

Dan: (01:40)
The unknown. Yeah. And how does that actually happen? How does that happen for our students and their brains and stuff? How, how does, how do they get new knowledge and actually store it away and keep it and be able to recall it later?

Judy: (01:53)
Okay. A years ago someone said, what are the major three things? And on the spur of the moment, you know, the three letters I came up with, I was still pretty true. RAD so it’s RADteach or RAD there’s website, but R a D R particular activating system entry system that determines what information even gets in through a significant attention filter the R isn’t just part RAD it’s RAS, reticular activating system. It’s way down in the lowest part of the brain, just above the spinal cord. So information. And then we can talk about what gets through, but everything that we learn has to start by coming through the senses. What gets through from the senses has to be accepted by this very important filter. That’s really discriminating this RAS in the, the brain is only letting in about 1% of the millions of bits of sensory data reporting in every second.

Judy: (03:10)
If the information that the brain is going to learn makes it through this attention filter, take care activating system, RAS. If it makes it through there, it still has to reach ultimately the furthest part away from it in the brain, the prefrontal cortex it’s below the forehead. It’s, couldn’t be further away from the entry point way back here to here. So imagine a diagonal from your affirm to your bottom or your top of your path. And that’s where information has to travel. If it wasn’t just a matter of distance is even something else. That’s going to be another barrier. Remember attention, filter’s going to block out 99%, one out of it. More than that, although I’ve taught algebra and maths, uh, you’re only learning the brain’s only letting in 1% of the millions of bits every second. If the information that from the census is accepted before it will even get to the prefrontal cortex, it … Has to go through an emotional filter, a switching station at the limbic system.

Judy: (04:30)
It’s in the middle of the brain, deep in the brain, one on each side that has to be allowing comfortable passage. It can’t be overworked. And we can talk about how stress puts that in the red zone. Sorry, you made it through the first filter. Now you’re not now you’re going back to the low brain where the response is fight flight freeze. If it makes it through the attention filter, um, this, uh, modalism emotional filter and gets through the memory short-term, long-term makes it up there to the prefrontal cortex. Then their names need to be mental manipulation to take the sensory data, connect it with prior knowledge and constructed into understanding, which by design as Jay and I work about is going to connect it to other neural networks to make it become long-term memory, without understanding all of that work will work. Oh, that won’t work. So it really does, as I’ve learned from Jamie Thai is backward design. So if you really want something to reach the prefrontal cortex to become durable understanding and long-term memory, you better know what’s happening from the entry point to the emotional switching station to transferring it from short-term memory to understanding to enduring long-term memory.

Dan: (06:15)
Okay. And so is that just are that you’ve talked about there of the RAD letters or is that all of them? I

Judy: (06:22)
Was the reticular activating system. That’s the RAS R particular activating system. Okay. A is the amygdala, the emotional switching station that when it’s in a hyper state of excitability, usually from stress, it’s going to block passage up to the memory. And it’s also going to block executive function down to manage reflective responses. So just back to the R a D R reticular activating system for attention, a amigdala the emotional switching station to get on further D is dopamine. And we understand that the positive desire of achievement achieving a challenge that we’ve all experienced. You know, I set a goal. I worked at it. I saw progress. I saw progress. Not that I had a wait until I ran a marathon. Six months later, I saw progress. Each time I caught myself, I stopped progress as a baby. Yeah. I’d fall down a lot, but oh, now worked a little better.

Judy: (07:46)
This dopamine neurotransmitter is released when the brain sees two things, an achievable challenge. So the brain won’t put out effort. We can talk about why the brain is programmed, not to put out effort and energy because it’s there for survival breathing. But with this perfect Goldilocks zone, Doberman is the ticket that gets the brain motivated to persevere, to sustain through setbacks and mistakes and embarrassment. It’s why we want the brain puts out the effort to get going. It feels so good. And the video game model demonstrates it. We can go into more about how it works in a video game, but that’s the neurochemistry that promotes sustained motivation and perseverance and mistakes.

Dan: (08:45)
That’s fantastic. So, yeah. So RAD. So with RAD, I can already, as a teacher, I could start to see things that I should be doing to make sure that that’s working well, like, uh, for the reticular activating system. I think I got that, right. I need to make sure that my students are focused and paying attention. And so I’m sure there’s things that we can do that to promote that, uh, when it comes to the amygdala, we need to make sure that our students emotionally are feeling safe and well, and I’m in a good place for learning and not feeling anxious about things, not stressed because of life at home and those kinds of things. So with dopamine, we’re then looking at like celebrating, I guess, the success that they have is that in our classrooms, what can teachers do to really help our students to get the new learning that they’re getting to take it through the RAD system, have them actually mentally manipulate the information, be successful and, and experience that dopamine hit. How do we do that with our students?

Judy: (09:44)
Okay. I’ll try to be concise with me, come back to any more details of, because hopefully you’re going to edit this, but I knew it, the reticular activating system, this filter, but let’s end up about 1% of millions of sensory data. So, you know, from neuro imaging and neuroleptic studies that the intake filter this reticular activating system, R a L S gives priority to number one is RET, which I’m going to put aside, even though it’s big, if there’s not a big perception of threat or danger, it gives priority to what has changed. What’s different. The input that will get selected for students is what is a unexpected, but not scary sound, taste, visual smell movement. So walking backwards, if the students are coming in any grade level or faculty meeting, and the teachers walk in backwards, handing out the papers or saying, good morning, the brain will alert the RAS.

Judy: (11:03)
We’ll let that information. Yeah. We’ll give a priority because it’s not the usual pattern. So here’s the RAS, the reticular activating system. If something is unexpected different from the usual pattern patterns or what it does that gets priority intake to attention. So there’s a lot more, but I, you know, not more specific things changes in color changes in what someone is wearing changes in sound, not words, the RAS does not know language, but volume, cadence movement, their movement, your movement colors. That’s why we sometimes send home Friday folders have a different colors. Can the parents actually read? So that gets prepared through the attention. So then what’s going to get through the next filter, the MacDill that it’s going to let that information go somewhere. That’s good news, but where it goes well. So here’s information nicely flowing in, try to get to the prefrontal cortex from memory.

Judy: (12:20)
But if the amygdala is already hit that red zone, it’s not going to get access. What’s going to happen to it. As I said, it’s going to go somewhere, but where it’s going to be deflected to let’s cut off the lower brain. So if the amygdala has been put into that stress state where perceives, even if it’s not true, it’s a perceived threat instead of passage up and information is tent. Yeah. Kind of up but laterally to the reactive behavior brain. And that’s when stress results in reaction fight flight freeze, which in humans is acting out or zoning out. And even at best, it’s not allowing passage into memory.

Dan: (13:14)
How do we help it to let the information through

Judy: (13:17)
Here’s what the amygdala will stop being a blocker first, helping students recognize that they have this and make dilemma that when they are acting out or zoning out, they’re not bad. They’re not lazy. They’re not unintelligent. That behavior is a, usually a reactive response to a stress data, make doula that isn’t living. Not only is it not letting information up into memory and understanding, but now we’re getting a new place when it’s also blocking top down flow in this ultimate high-end real estate. That’s prefrontal cortex, where we need information to get them to construct during understanding and conceptual memory. Also, there are, they’re developing executive function among which, and critical to which are understanding of one’s own emotions and recognizing when stress is building and having the facility to recognize it and do something about it.

Dan: (14:36)
Okay. So essentially what you’re saying is if we can help our students to manage their emotions, that’s going to help that information come through the radicular activating system. So, um, so I think their system, and then you get through the, through the amygdala, up into the, um, prefrontal cortex, is that where it’s then going to be manipulated and stuff. And then if they are successful in their manipulations, then they get that dopamine hit, which then stirs on further motivation. It helps them to keep going with that. So in my classroom, if I remind them of previous times where they’ve been successful and stuff, does that help them to set that up for success too?

Judy: (15:16)
Yes. For, and what will happen is it builds up over time, just like a negative mindset set. I can’t do this builds up over time. Remember that achievable challenge, the biggest boost with release of dopamine. It doesn’t even have to get to the prefrontal cortex. It’s kind of a whole brain thing. Dopamine, when it’s released, floats around the brain, it’s not just a little synopsis aid or a transmitter, but when dopamine is released and beads the brain, the outcome in mammals includes increased memory, motivation, pleasure, satisfaction, memory, as it may have said, memory and perseverance and attention. So what we want is what is the most profound way to cause that really positive state of mind from our AAS articular activating system to make doula, to prefer a cortex to memory to life is experiencing the things that release dopamine. So I’ll talk more, but I did mention achieving a challenge, other things that turn out to release whole brain dopamine and those wonderful things, such as sustained motivation, memory, perseverance, attention, that whole nice cluster.

Judy: (16:57)
Other things that turn out to release it include listening to music, being told stories, humor, movement, gratitude, kindness, those experiences are so big. The brain in this dopamine. But to me, the most powerful one is one relate to you and listeners achieving a challenge. So the brain will put out as well, the body directed by the brain, the effort and persevere through the mistakes. When a teacher guides through the expectation and provides the support that it’s an achievable challenge. So A, the ideal, and this is what happens in the most compelling video games or skiing experiences, recognizing a teacher recognizing individually, or at least into small groups or through flip classrooms or pre-planning or personalizing, what will make this student’s brain say, Hey, this is achievable with effort, but I see how I could get there. And it’s still a challenge. And I see that you expect that I can achieve it.

Judy: (18:28)
That’s what it takes. And it’s so profound. And that’s why I say teaching isn’t brain surgery. It’s harder because I’ve done both every day and teacher’s life in the 10 years after my practicing of neurology every day, each teacher for every student for every minute, there are so many factors. As we’ve talked about determining what’s getting in through attention, what’s getting in through the emotional filter, what’s making it up to the prefrontal cortex and are we keeping the emotional filter, believing that there’s a challenge and it’s achievable. So it doesn’t flip into fight flight freeze act out, zone out. That’s so much easier than beautiful ask.

Dan: (19:22)
Then as we give our teachers something to do this week relating to all this, should they start by maybe introducing music at the beginning of the lesson that gets more dopamine into the kids’ brains? Tell a joke at the start, or is it more effective to give the students a small achievable challenge maybe as they come into the class, that’ll help them to get into the right mind frame. I guess so mindset for what the learning that’s going to come that day.

Judy: (19:48)
Great question. Be prepared to get three things that video games do. Reticular activating system attention will be paid to something. Remember, unless there’s a lot of threat to, what’s curious, what’s changed. What’s different. What’s a buy-in goal. Why should I let this information in? So if you’re going to teach a lesson and nutrition, that is not their favorite thing, a faculty meeting about sexual harassment. You know, if it’s not a big hype hot topic, what’s going to get their brain and say, oh, okay. I might let that in. So the things that we’ll get through the attention filter the post, once there’s not perceived threat changes in color movement, volume of stout, not necessarily a lateral or a softer, but if I like a rope, but, or walking backwards when they come in. So we’re a great curious photo or video when they come in, that is going to connect with what comes next.

Judy: (21:02)
So now they’re hooked a hook. So their comment, they say, oh, that’s not so bad. Um, and they know because of experience with you that, oh, that curious optical illusion is going to have something to do with this maths lesson. And, you know, the RAS is going to let it in. Then once they’re hooked, then understanding what their goal will be. Okay. This was curious. It’s not going to keep their RAS open all day. What are they going to get out of this? So a short-term goal is that’s curious a longer term goals. So what’s in it for me. Oh, here’s a longer-term goal. I will get to make a color wheel, a slide, uh, even, uh, write a letter to somebody who’s important. What will I get if I then go on to gain this information that you’ve now shown me a video about?

Judy: (22:12)
So they’re hooked by the RAS sleigh and the color movement, uh, sound okay. I’m interested. This isn’t the usual boring stuff. Then showing them options of what they, you have to know them. We all know that what is, what hooks them and sustains their attention? Is it robots? Is it working in groups? Is it working on computers? We have to know our learners and knowing that say, well, taking this a little bit further, this is what you can do with it. Then before you lose them, because they say, oh, I thought it would be another oral presentation. No, no. How will they build their understanding and demonstrate their skills so that they can get the goal that they want and especially important. Okay. I can see how learning the periodic table of elements. Oh, I see. It’s far as I don’t want vertical. I see.

Judy: (23:24)
And you’re going to let me use it on the test. So I see that went over in one down or a mathematical multiplication, whatever tools they see what they want to use it for. Otherwise who cares just another graph, but they see what they want to use it for. And they have now the achievable challenge. How are you going to give them different ways of reaching that goal through different levels of reading through flip classroom, through Khan academy, through audio, through so five different levels of the same material and books. That’s labeled one to five, but they’re not showing, but oh, look at what, when I’m on one now saying, I know you can get to level five mastery and your goal, but the system is set up so that they can see they’re making progress to the goal that you’ve confidently, let them know that they can achieve and what they’ll do with it.

Judy: (24:30)
That’s it. It’s not so fancy. It does take time. And like, pre-surgery, it means a teacher’s own achievable challenge when cannot have a high school class of 50, a hundred students, three times a day and individualized or personalized they’re achievable challenge program. But one at a time when level at a time when other students see the impact that something is having that you’re doing on their classmates, they say, okay, I can do it too. Especially, especially when they understand that their brain will do what it believes is the outcome. They have to know that there weren’t bad, stupid attention disease. They didn’t have to read syndrome seizure disorder because all those kids have come to me in my neurology office. And one in a hundred has those things. So whatever they’ve been told they have is likely to be who they will be. You wake up with a new brain every morning and the opportunities, the experiences, the positive expectations that we give them, changes them every day.

Dan: (26:01)
Thank you so much, Judy, for coming on the podcast for giving me so much of your time and for explaining the neuroscience behind how students are learning. Uh, I really appreciate you giving us that

Judy: (26:13)
My pleasure achievable challenge achieved.

Dan: (26:19)
That’s it for this podcast. Thank you so much for listening. If you enjoy this episode, please make sure that you subscribe and that you leave me a great review. I’d love to hear from you. And if you want to see the show notes in the transcript, or if you would like to actually get the full version of this interview, because I’ve edited this one to make it a bit shorter for the podcast. But if you want the full video, come over to teachers.net/85, and you can grab the full video by subscribing there and I’ll send it to you in your inbox. And you’re able to watch the full it’s almost an hour long. or about 45 minutes, you’ll be able to watch that full video and learn more in depth about how the RAD system of teaching and that process and how that influences what we should be doing in our classrooms. So thank you so much. And I hope that you will join me again next week.

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